What I Mean When I Say That WILD is My Favorite Book

Last year, I read Cheryl Strayed’s WILD, and it immediately displaced any other book as my favorite. If I could give it my top five favorite spots, I would. When I read WILD for the first time, the first chapter grabbed me right in the heart. I cried for a long time. I put down the book for weeks. I picked it up and read more, and cried again. This happened the second time I read it, and the third. It’s still hard for me to think at length about this book without tearing up.

On one level, I connected with young Cheryl as she breaks from her life and starts what seems less like a new chapter than a new book entirely. After I graduated both college and a terrible depression, I quit my job, moved to New York, and decided I needed to stand on my own and chase my dreams. And I have. It’s worked out really well for me, on the whole, which I know isn’t always the case. I know how lucky I am, and when Cheryl succeeded, she wrote about it in a way that I identified with.

But for every time that I felt close to the story for our similarities, I felt my heart cleaved in two when reading about Cheryl’s losses and failures. In college, an on-and-off serious relationship nearly destroyed me wholly, in ways that are so similar and so different from hers. I’ve also struggled with my relationship with my family, primarily my mother, for the last decade, to the point where only in the last year or two have we really been able to start healing our relationship and have the closer bond we both want.

My mom and I don’t usually talk about how things make us feel in relation to each other. We talk a lot about food. We send each other pictures and recipes over text and Facebook. We talk about books sometimes, since she wants to get back into reading and I can give her strong recommendations. We talk about what we’ve been up to lately, when we do talk on the phone about once every week or so. Usually we call when there’s been something momentous to discuss, but otherwise we don’t have much that fills the blank of “What else?”, the unspoken family motto. It goes without saying (though we do) that we love each other, but we talk about how we do what we’re doing, rather than how we feel about what we’re doing. We just don’t talk about feelings that much.

It’s not that we don’t love each other. We do, intensely. But we love each other in a different way than my boyfriend’s family does, and from your family does, and anyone else’s, probably. It would likely be appropriate to quote Tolstoy here, but I wouldn’t say that my family is unhappy. I would say that there have been events in everyone’s lives that have drained intense emotion from us, drawn it out in such a way that we no longer have the strength to bring it to the surface with regularity. We are happy, but that happiness is tempered by the unhappiness we’ve wrought on each other and that’s been wrought on us. No one is really to blame. That’s just how it is.

It’s not bad. It’s just different. It’s just how we are. I used to think I wanted to talk to my family every day and share all of our emotions, but as I’ve gotten older and thought on end about the relationships in my extended family, I don’t think that’s in the cards for us. And I’m okay with that now, for some reasons, but many of them are that that’s not how my family shows its love. We do talk and show our live by sharing things we know our family members will like. We’ve always been big on gift holidays because that’s how we express things. Mere words tend to lose meaning with us, given our history with empty conversation, and so we like to back them up when we can.

Something I’ve learned in the past year is that my mom and I have a growing bond over cooking and recipe sharing. Since I started living alone, like an adult, I’ve started taking a strong interest in learning how to really cook, and not just from basic recipes. I always took it for granted that my mom was good at cooking, but now I know that it’s one of her great loves. More and more, it’s one of mine, too—and I’ve learned that I’m good at it. When I visited over Christmas last year, we cooked together almost every day, learning from each other and spending time reading cookbooks and recipes together. These are the bonds I make with my mother, and they mean more to me than almost anything. I think she knows that.

But it matters when I read WILD and can’t get through the mom chapters without having a thorough cry. When I first read this book, I knew that I didn’t want to miss out on this relationship in my own life, especially considering how fraught with tension it’s been over the last decade of our lives. Maybe I don’t have what some people would now consider an ideal relationship with my parents, but it works for us. Over the last ten years, we’ve all learned a lot about what depression means and how it can affect a family dynamic in almost every way. It hasn’t been easy on anyone, and that compounded on extended family issues has been even harder.

My mom’s family has a history of Alzheimer’s disease. I remember going to see my grandmother, my mom’s mom, in a nursing home, and watching my mom be vulnerable in a way that doesn’t happen very often, in ways that I’m not sure I’ve seen since. I remember my grandmother, my Nana, when she was in full control of her faculties and making me elaborate birthday cakes when we’d visit my mom’s small hometown, and as I grow older, thinking about how the slow, sad change must have affected my mom and her sisters affects me, as I translate it to my own possible future. I can more accurately imagine the reality of the future, and it scares me. The older I get, the more afraid I am that this could—and likely will—happen to me, and I’m afraid of wasting opportunities. It’s especially hard since I live 1500 miles from home right now, but we do what we can.

I think sometimes about what my life will be like when my parents die. It’s very upsetting and I don’t like to think about it, but I do. I wonder how I will feel, how my relationship between my brother and I will be different, and what it will mean for my life. I also know that nothing can prepare me for how I will feel, but now that I’m older, I feel like I have a better handle on things than I used to. Or, at least, I can understand what the reality is, especially regarding mental illness.

When I read WILD, it feels like I’m preparing myself a little better for the eventuality. I sometimes don’t think we talk about grief enough, especially in regard to parental death, and it’s something that my generation is starting to face as a matter of eventual course rather than by horrible, untimely accident. And that scares me. It scares me that there’s little I can really do to fend off my fears. I wonder if I’ll dissolve into nothingness again, and hope that I won’t. I wonder if I’ll need to make a major life change, and hope that I won’t. I wonder if my life will ever be the same again, and I know that it won’t.

No, I’m not consumed by these fears, but as someone who’s always needed to prepare for major changes, sometimes it scares me that this isn’t something you can ever really be fully prepared for. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who have already had to face this, whose lives were altered too soon. We can never be ready, really.

Cheryl Strayed is known for her raw voice, one that holds you together while you work through every day tragedies. Nothing that’s happened to her is so crazy that it hasn’t happened to anyone else, but what’s different about her writing is that she wants you to experience your grief. She wants you to know that it’s okay to have a wide range of feelings about things that happen to you. Her long-running (now defunct) advice column for The Rumpus, Dear Sugar, is one that will change your life if you let it.

There’s no real way to end this except to say that my former book club didn’t fall in love with this book the way I did, and for a book that affected me as strongly as this one, I can’t understand why. Cheryl’s return from the brink brought up feelings I thought long buried and inspired new thoughts, even new fears. At its simplest, it could be called a quarter-life crisis, I guess. But really, for me, it was about understanding what it means to be catapulted into adulthood in the way that we all are.

Pre-Christmas Quick Pic

Screen Shot 2012-12-23 at 10.36.29 PMThings have been pretty busy here at Chez Mustard Ampersand this weekend–not only are we gearing up for Christmas and New Year’s, but my family is here for a visit! Things have been pretty action-packed and I’ll update more as soon as I have a free minute.

In the meantime, take a breather with this picture of Davis and me from our hotel tonight while we wait for the elevator. More actual pictures of New York to come, but I think this is one of my favorite pictures we’ve ever taken.

One year later: Reflections on moving to New York City

It’s official. Today is the one year anniversary of my having packed up everything in my life and moved to New York. I got a chill just typing that out. I still can’t believe it’s been a year. And though I’m probably just another twenty-something reflecting into the void of Internet narcissism, I feel like I have some thoughts that I’d like to share.

This is a milestone for me. Other people have different milestones, but I knew when I moved here that if I was still happy with everything when I’d hit a year, I was going to be able to make it work. I’ve made it. I’m happy, to make the understatement of the year. My next milestone is turning 25 next May, and even though it feels like that should be the more important marker in my life, it’s not. Moving to New York has by far been the most monumental decision I’ve made in my life, and I’m not sure anything will change that. At least, not anytime soon.

One thing I’ve done is read accounts of people who move to New York for no real other reason than that they wanted to live in The Greatest City In The World ™. And, without fail, the one thing I have read over and over again was that the first year was the hardest. There will never be a time when you are more broke, filled with more despair, and wondering just how long you can continue this facade of hating yourself and hoping that if you can just make it past a year, a magical switch will flip and you will become successful. Or, at least, you’ll be able to escape this spiral of self-loathing and feel moderately content with where you’ve gotten.

I don’t know about any actual magical switches, but I will say that there is something suspiciously accurate about the one year mark. With almost exactly one year, to the day, of my anniversary of moving to the city, I can now say that I am working in two jobs that I could not possibly love more and that I’ve filled my life with the greatest people I’ve ever known. I could not be happier. My life could not be better. If I’ve been lax on blogging lately, it’s because I’m out with friends almost every night, and I’m financially stable in a way that I have never been as an adult.

Before I moved, a friend of mine from home gave me a gift: a beautiful silver keychain heart with the engraving ‘Faithful Optimism’. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last year, it’s that you have to be optimistic and you have to have faith in yourself, and that’s what you need to push through. You’ll also need help from other people, and maybe you’ll have to borrow money sometimes, and maybe you’ll have to ask for directions, and maybe it’ll be really humiliating because you really want to make it on your own and it’s a horrible feeling when you can’t. But eventually, you’ll pull through. You’ll meet the right people and get involved in the right crowds, and you’ll make the transition into being an adult.

There’s really something to be said for flexibility. When I moved to New York, I had a very specific plan for what I wanted to do and how I was going to get there. To put it succinctly, that plan did not work out. However, I took my opportunities where I could get them and made my networking connections and tried to find happiness where I could, and in the last month I’ve found that I could not be happier. I have two jobs that I love more than I’ve ever loved anything, and neither of them are something I ever thought I would end up doing. I mean, before I moved to NYC, working for a start-up wasn’t even on my radar, and now I can’t imagine doing anything else. I thrive on hard work and being busy and working long hours for something I love with a team of people who are just the same, and this kind of environment is perfect.

The crazy thing about catching a break in New York is that you feel like you don’t deserve it. The other shoe seems always about to drop. If you can slow down for just a second, though, let the adrenaline wash over you while you take a second to think about everything that’s happened to you, nothing can be more rewarding. Because you do deserve it. If you live here, you deserve to be happy. If you’ve made it here, you should be happy about it. The only person who can really make you feel like you don’t deserve to be happy is yourself. It’s easy to get down because you’re working so hard, nose so close to the grindstone, that you lose sight of the bigger picture and the reason you’re working. It’s really easy. But keep one eye on the reason you chose to live in New York, because you deserve to feel happy for how hard you’ve worked. You do deserve happiness and you deserve to catch your breath once in a while.

No, it’s not for everyone, and maybe it’s not always forever. I can’t see myself leaving anytime soon, but I really can’t say whether I’m going to live in New York for the rest of my life. There are so many other places in the world I want to see. I’m incredibly happy right now and there’s nothing I would change, but I also know that should I ever get tired, should living here ever stop being fun, should things get more difficult than I want them to be, then I’ll know it’s time to move on. There are no contingency plans as of yet, but it’s all about my perspective–if I’m ever so unhappy or depressed or poor that living here isn’t any fun, I’ll know it’s time. Of course, the first six months were a combination of the three, because I didn’t know anyone and finding a job was so much harder than I imagined, but once I made it out of the initial transition, it’s like I’m living a dream. It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me, for right now, for as far as I can presently see.

The last year of my life has been absolutely irreplaceable, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. It’s been up and down, for sure, but the ups have outweighed the downs more heavily than I can ever explain. Once I made the decision to move, it was always about moving forward and knowing that better was coming. It’s been a long twelve months, but I always knew it was going to be worth it. And I was right. Every single moment has been worth it, even the hard times, because more than ever I know who I am, who I want to be, and where I want to go with my life. And that’s something I’ll always keep close to my heart.

Lack of interest isn’t necessarily lack of talent.

Do we need math? What about all that science? What is and isn’t science? One of the great struggles of our generation, truly. Maybe that’s a little overdramatic, but still–this argument is still treading water, for whatever reason. For as long as I can really remember, I have had an aversion to math and science, and my gut-reaction explanation for that is “I’m not good at it.”

A few months ago, though, it struck me: I’m not bad at math. I’m not bad at science. I just decided somewhere along the way that I didn’t like them, and therefore, I wasn’t good at them. Of course, it’s true that I did prefer the liberal arts-based areas of education, but I pretty much refused to take any further interest in math or science after about my sophomore year of high school. I took AP Chemistry my junior year because I wanted to have a certain teacher at the school (and share a class with my science brain boyfriend), not because Pre-AP had been a knockout course (spoiler alert: it wasn’t). Being taught and tutored by people who love science, though, made me realize that maybe it was the way it was being taught and the way I interpreted it that made me like or dislike it.

Once I started putting more effort into learning, it got easier. Of course it did. I still put it about midway in my priorities list, but I do remember enjoying the class. Sometimes I wish I would have slowed my roll on my humanities classes and put more brain into the math/science stuff. I mean, the literal last math class I took was, like, Algebra II, my junior year of high school. I’m pretty sure that was it. My parents always told me that they expected A grades from me because I was capable of making A grades, and when I wasn’t willing to put in that kind of effort anymore, I quit those classes, because I was sixteen and didn’t know what I was doing. This was the beginning of my mistake of just looking elsewhere for things I could excel in rather than pushing myself to work harder. There’s nothing wrong with tailoring your education to your successes–we need all the help we can get, these days, but sometimes I think it creates some serious educational gaps.

One thing you may not know about me is that I got an accounting minor in college, as well. Actually, I have more than a minor, because I was going to earn a double degree. The only reason I don’t is because it would have given me a few more years of school, and due to depression that wasn’t really something I was able to do at the time. I still have fantasies about getting my MBA and CPA someday–we’ll see. I don’t really put accounting in the “general math classes” category because, well, math is math and accounting is accounting. Math is, as far as I know, about the math, and accounting is about data interpretation. At the time, I said I was getting the accounting minor because I figured I should get something business-y to go with my liberal arts degree–which was also true, but I’ve later realized that I really enjoyed accounting. People always throw me a big side-eye when I say that, but it’s true. No, it wasn’t easy. Accounting is not for the faint of heart or mind. But it was enjoyable, and at times, fun. Yes, really.

I don’t really have an answer or a wish-I-would’ve fix for that, but it is something that I regret. I couldn’t have asked for a better college experience–okay, well, that’s debatable, but my English degree was very challenging and enjoyable. And I’m no hidden math/science superstar–I think we can all agree on that. But I’m not terrible at critical thinking, and I do tend to let that side of my brain slack off, just because I can.

Like most things in life, I find that, with math and science, if I apply myself and make it a mental priority, I’m magically better at it the next time I try. We all know it’s not really magic, though–there’s a reason “practice makes perfect” is a saying. I mean, one of my greatest strengths is my reading speed and comprehension. However, in 2011 I really slacked off on reading novels, just because I didn’t have the time. Now that I ride the subway for at least an hour every day, I dedicate that time exclusively to reading on my phone (or carrying an actual book with me, if I’m feeling fancy and have the room). Like magic, I can read more and longer and with greater depth, and I’m finishing books in days rather than in weeks or months.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of the increasing lack of women in the STEM fields. Because of the fact that I grew up thinking that if I didn’t like something, it was somehow my fault and that I was bad at it, rather than learning that I was capable. Because the things happening in science right now are really freaking cool and I wish I had a better basic understanding of the sciences so I could know what was going on at all times. Because women can defeat the “having it all” myth and really have it all without answering to the patriarchy to get approval on what that means.

And I’m not saying that these fields are more important than the humanities. Far from it, far from it. I mean, I’m still firmly entrenched in the humanities camp at this very moment. However, I don’t think it necessarily needs to be a divide–it should be a Venn diagram, really.

What I’m saying here is that if you think you’re bad at something, work harder at it. Make it your friend. Make it something you’re good at. I mean, the only things we dislike are things that we’re not an instant success at, right? It’s easy to just pass it off as something you aren’t naturally talented at, when in fact you might be–it might just be a difficult task. Calculus is really, really hard, but everyone I know who has practiced for hours and is good at calculus is over the moon about how much they enjoy it.

It’s true that if you don’t go into a mathematical or scientific field, you probably won’t need everything you learned growing up. I mean, that’s still true. But when you have the chance to learn it, you should. Even after school, I keep an eye out for opportunities to enrich that side of my brain. Because when someone asks me a simple math question and I don’t have the answer waiting, I don’t like it. Personally, I like to know things and have answers ready at all times, and when I don’t, I know it’s my own fault for not having prepared myself.

I think it’s really easy for students of all ages, especially young women, to decide they aren’t good at math and science, and that’s just not true. Science especially is an historically patriarchal field, but every day women are making great strides to overcome that. Let’s keep up that work. This isn’t just a post for students. This is a post for everyone. Learn something every day, something that isn’t directly related to your daily habits, something in a field you know little about. Watch documentaries on Netflix in your spare time. Take one of the millions of free courses available online at sites like Coursera. Enrich yourself.

Just, most of all, don’t sell yourself short. It’s okay to not do something because you don’t like doing it. Just don’t quit because you think you will never be good at it. Because that is just not true.

desert island books

A few days ago, I was on the phone with my mom and she agreed to mail me a couple of my favorite books from home. When I moved, I had to leave literally my entire life’s library of books in their garage, which if you know me, you know that’s something I was really sad about. I’ve been trying to think of a way to get those books here that isn’t just driving them all up here (with my sewing machine and Kitchen Aid mixer and a few other things), which might happen at some point in the next year or so. But for the sake of this post, let’s pretend I’m not doing that.

But really, right now that’s not feasible. So I’m trying to think of which books I own that I really want her to send me. I can only choose a few out of hundreds, so this is a more in-depth decision than I had originally thought.

The more I think about this, the more it feels like one of those desert island challenges. You know, if you were going to be deserted on a desert island for the rest of forever and could only take five books/DVDs/whatever, what would you take? My selection pool is a bit more finite, but it still feels like a pretty big decision. These days, I’m leaning towards something like

  • Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns – Mindy Kaling
  • American Gods – Neil Gaiman
  • Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby
  • Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen
  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle – David Wroblewski
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  • The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris

This is maybe too many books to ask for, but this is my shortlist, right now. I would count all of these books in my favorites, and if you haven’t read them, you really should. If you saw the movie of The Time Traveler’s Wife, the books is about a gazillion times better, just a caveat.

But I can’t decide.

So I’m asking you–if you could only bring five of the books you own with you to the desert island, what books would they be?

Or, say you have a day left–are there any books you’d go out and buy to add to your five? You can’t buy five new books, though. Only, like, one or maybe two.

Or just help me decide?

One summer after college: On growing up.

People always say that not going back to school in the fall is weird, and they’re right. It is weird. But I have to say, I couldn’t be happier. So many people say high school or college are the best days of their lives, but I can’t agree. I want every day to be the best day of my life, and I couldn’t do that if I left them behind in college.

For me, it only confirmed what I’ve always suspected: the real world is about a zillion times better than college. Sure, college has its perks – mid-afternoon naps, finals week late night breakfast, being able to do crazy things and get away with them because you’re in college – but living in the real world is so much better.

I have a regular sleep schedule now – because I have a regular work schedule – which means that I get tired if I stay up too late. I feel rested in the morning and my body isn’t constantly out-of-whack with my brain. When I go home at night, I don’t have to think about work and I’m free to do other things, like run a growing Etsy business, start a book club with some of my closest friends, work out regularly, make leaps and bounds in my personal faith, and make more time for friends in general.

Also, I work with two of my best friends, and my office is down the road from the “good” mall. It doesn’t get much better than that.

You know, it has been a little weird transitioning into an office environment this fall. I’ve worked in retail since I was 16, with a few professional office summer jobs, but this is different. This is the first office job where I feel like an integral part of a team, and I love everything about it. I do miss my time in the service industry, because there are countless lessons to be learned in those jobs that you can’t learn elsewhere, but I’m very, very happy with where I am now. I feel like it not only lets me live how I want to live, but it affords me the luxury to spend an evening crafting rather than working, rather than being exhausted from having been on my feet all day. Luckily, I work in a casual office where I’m allowed to bring my own personal style into the workplace every day, which I couldn’t appreciate more.

The thing that makes me feel the best about being out of college, though, is the peace of mind I now have. I know this isn’t entirely due to having graduated, but I would be remiss if I didn’t attribute much of my past stress and anxiety to college in general. I consistently overloaded myself and was unable to complete everything, which gave me a crash course in time management and delegation, something I didn’t have to worry about in high school. College itself is such a crash course in growing up that I don’t understand how some people are able to seemingly fly through with only a few problems. And I don’t just mean academically – college has so many stressors mentally and emotionally that it’s no surprise it’s such a high period of depression. I certainly fell into that – and it cost me a whole year. College is hard. It’s just a fact. If you’re doing it right, college is hard.

But now, I feel like I’ve been able to let go of so much of that. I’m able to surround myself with the people I choose, I have a better feel for the kind of people I want to be around, and I know who my friends are. I don’t feel pressure to maintain acquaintances that I really don’t know well, and I no longer feel pressure to stay on top of everything, socially and emotionally. I still feel like I’m being productive every day in some way and like I’m continually furthering myself in every way, but I’m not stressed about it. I’m doing it because I want to, not because I feel obligated and worried about failure. I can’t tell you how much that changes your perspective on every single thing.

I know who I am and where I am, in every way, and that’s miles ahead of anywhere I was a year ago or even five years ago. Five years ago I was a college freshman and I had no idea who I was. I defined myself by a completely different set of standards than I do now. I’ve learned so much, both good and bad, and had so many experiences. I’ve known so many people and changed my views on so many things.

And the best part is that I know this is only the beginning of the journey. I have so much life left to live, and so many exciting plans for even the next year of my life. I can’t wait.

Are you graduated and loving it? Hating it? Still in college or grad school and working for the future? How do you anticipate post-college life?